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Congress Acts to Mark Passports of Sex Offenders

Target of legislation is sex-traffickers; critics call it a ‘scarlet letter.’

Update 11:45 a.m. 02.09.2016

Update: President Obama signed the bill into law on Feb. 8, 2016.

Original Story

Legislation requiring the State Department to identify registered sex offenders with a special mark on their passports received final passage in the House of Representatives on Monday night and went to President Obama’s desk. The White House has not indicated whether President Obama plans to sign the bill.

Called “International Megan’s Law” by its sponsors, the bill provides that offenders’ passports contain a “unique identifier” — as yet unspecified. Critics call it a scarlet letter. “Who is going to have a unique identifier added to their passport next? Is it going to be Muslims? Is it going to be gays?” asks Janice Bellucci, a civil rights attorney who has fought against sex offender registries.

Supporters say the bill will help prevent sex trafficking, since sex offenders “hop on planes and go to places for a week or two and abuse little children,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., told Multiple requests for comment made to Smith’s office were not returned.

In drafting the bill, Smith and others drew upon a 2010 GAO report that found that about 4,500 of the more than 16 million U.S. passports issued each year go to registered sex offenders. The report included a selected list of registered sex offenders who received passports in 2008, with detailed descriptions of their crimes.

In a rebuttal printed as an appendix in the report, the State Department noted that there was no evidence anyone on that list had traveled in order to commit a sex crime, and that it already has the authority to deny passports to people convicted of sex tourism involving minors and those whose probation or parole terms forbid them from traveling.

“We think the report is very misleading,” the State Department wrote. “Starting with the title, ‘Passports Issued to Thousands of Registered Sex Offenders,’ we are concerned that it conveys more ‘shock value’ than factual accuracy.”

Multiple studies have shown that sex offender registries do not prevent sex crimes and in fact can increase crime, by driving people on the registry away from legal employment, housing, and positive social networks.

In addition to the new passport marking, the law would codify an existing Immigration and Customs Enforcement program called “Operation Angel Watch,” which notifies officials abroad when registered sex offenders plan to travel to those countries.

Critics of the program say there are myriad reasons U.S. citizens might travel abroad that have nothing to do with past crimes: for work, to visit family, and for vacation. The “Angel Watch” notifications would still apply even in cases where crimes were committed decades prior, and when the crimes that landed people on the registry had nothing to do with sex trafficking or international travel.

Paul Rigney heads up a group in Dallas called Registrant Travel Action Group in which he is collecting stories of people whose status on the registry has interfered with international travel. One man wrote that he has a daughter in medical school abroad; he fears he won’t be able to travel to her graduation. One woman wrote that she and her husband wanted to take their three kids on a Carnival cruise, but “I received a letter denying me access to ever travel with them again due to my registration status. I was appalled and humiliated.”

Bob, who asked The Marshall Project to withhold his last name, arrived at an airport in the Phillippines to visit his wife, who lives there, only to be turned away. Several years prior he had pleaded guilty to a single count of Violation of Privacy — a “peeping Tom” charge that arose from a dispute with his ex-wife. He had traveled to the Philippines many times before, he says, but suddenly in 2012, unbeknownst to him, a “traveling sex offender alert” had been sent to the Philippine government. Because his immigration petition to bring his wife to the U.S. is still pending, these trips are the couple’s only way to see each other.

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Contributed to DocumentCloud by Beth Schwartzapfel of The Marshall Project • View page as text